Hearing that a BBC local radio presenter had lost his job because he played a song containing a racist word reminded me of the time I almost played the same song in my shop.
I wanted to celebrate the Winchester Hat Fair so I gathered together as many songs as I could find about hats, downloading most of them from iTunes. Among them were You Can Keep Your Hat On, Top Hat, Wherever I Hang My Hat and, naively on my part, the original 1932 recording of The Sun Has Got His Hat On.
I put the playlist on the shop iPod and left it to be played on the first day of the Hat Fair while I worked at home. It was while I was tapping away on my computer that I decided to play some music and thought I would listen to my hat selection. I had only heard the more modern version of The Sun Has Got His Hat On before so I was shocked to hear the n-word included in its jaunty lyrics. As quick as I could, I was on the phone to the shop telling them to stop playing the Hat Songs.
I doubt the lyricist Ralph Butler had racist intent in his use of the word back in 1932. He was a talented comic writer also responsible for the words to Run Rabbit Run, Hey Little Hen and Nellie The Elephant. I believe it was a word commonly used by the British to describe non-white people and carried no prejorative meaning. You may recall that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was originally entitled Ten Little ***** and there was a traditional children’s rhyme Eeny Meeny Miny Mo which Jeremy Clarkson unwisely revived recently.
Interestingly the word was changed in a 1971 recording of The Sun Has Got His Hat On to ‘negroes’ which, although not taboo, is also an unacceptable term today. Words constantly change their meaning and their force but anything to do with people who are on the receiving end of discrimination is a particularly sensitive area, none more so than racism. To refer to someone as ‘black’ was once offensive but is now the term most accepted.
I remember when I was helping market a musical based on the life of Al Jolson, there were some fears that a show about a singer famous for ‘blacking up’ might stir up protests. As it happened, audiences seemed to accept that this aspect of his career was of its time and could still enjoy one of the greatest stage entertainers ever. It's quite possible the vast majority would think the same way about The Sun Has Got His Hat On and the many other cultural works of that era but there is no point in risking causing offence without a good reason. I also think the BBC overreacted to the playing of the song: unless it was done deliberately to offend, an apology should have been more than sufficient.
Much as I loathe Jeremy Clarkson, I have some sympathy with a person who found himself about to say something he realised was wrong and so mumbled the word. It wasn’t even broadcast for goodness sake. Just as my playlist never got played.
Having said that, I won't complain about people being over sensitive or moan about how hard it is to keep up with the latest ‘political correctness’. I believe we should be aware that words can hurt. In fact I am encouraged that words still have such power. And much as I admire the output of Ralph Butler, I’m glad I didn’t treat my customers to his original lyrics.
This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy Seven Experience and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.